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High court declares animal cruelty law unconstitutional

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  1. Prior Restraint
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a federal law that criminalized videos showing the torture and killing of animals…

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a federal law that criminalized videos showing the torture and killing of animals after deciding that it violated First Amendment free speech rights.

The case, U.S. v. Stevens, arose from a law aimed at so-called "crush videos," which are fetish films in which women torture or kill small animals by stepping on them in high heels or with their bare feet. But in the case before the court, Robert Stevens was convicted not for crush videos but for videos depicting dogfighting.

Chief Justice John J. Roberts Jr., writing for an 8-1 majority, said that the law created a "criminal prohibition of alarming breadth." The court found that the law could easily include all depictions of killing animals, such as hunting magazines, programs, videos, and web sites.

Notably, the court rejected the federal government’s argument that depictions of animal cruelty should be an entire category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment because the value of the speech does not outweigh its cost to society. Instead, the justices said that the First Amendment covered more than just "categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits."

"The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it," the court added.

The government’s claim that it would only use the law to prosecute cases of "extreme cruelty" was also rejected by the court, which said it "would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the Government promised to use it responsibly."

The only dissenting justice was Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who said he did not believe that the record showed that the law would ban a "substantial quantity of protected speech."

Davis Wright Tremaine Partner Bob Corn-Revere, who was co-counsel to Stevens, said that while this law targeted fringe and rare material, which is often the focus of restrictive laws due to its unpopularity, the case was very important because of the principles on which it was based.

"The government allocated to itself tremendous discretion in determining what speech is protected," he said.